Little Bilney: Ready to Witness

Sitting on the grassy slope were hundreds of onlookers. It was August 19, 1531 just outside of Norwich, England. Torn between two religions, England was a bloody sight. In 1531, she had not yet broken from Rome, although King Henry VIII was rearing that decree. Protestants and Catholics alike were suffering from the prolonged civil strife: beheadings, burnings, and such like. This day was to be no different. The gentle hills of Norwich formed a natural amphitheater where spectators could view the afternoon event. Another heretic was to be burned.

Sir Thomas More, King Henry’s right-hand man, felt that the burning stake had been idle all too long. A close friend of Erasmus and a staunch Catholic, More hunted down heretics like a hungry lion. So when the news got out that the bishop of Norwich arrested a man for preaching the Reformed faith and distributing William Tyndale’s New Testament, Sir Thomas More quickly issued his written permission to burn the preacher.

The prisoner caught in County Norfolk was Thomas Bilney. His friends called him “Little” Bilney because of his height. Yet unlike his physical stature, his preaching was mighty. So he was handed over to the sheriff for burning, his trial a farce.


            There is much more to this story than its gruesome ending. This man called Little Bilney had not been so courageous to speak the truth on past occasions. Twice before he had been arrested for preaching illegally, then recanted. Weak of heart, he cracked under pressure and took back everything he had said against the Roman Catholic Church. Both times, he confessed to church officials that he was truly Catholic and embraced all the Catholic Church’s teachings. Then, as he wished, Little Bilney was free. Although threatened with death if arrested again, Bilney was released from his prison cell. Free!

Unfortunately, it was not the kind of freedom he wanted. In fact, Little Bilney did not feel free at all. He knew that he had denied the truth to save his own hide. Suffering the agonies of remorse, Bilney realized his true imprisonment by the bondage of sin. Friends and fellow preachers attempted to soothe his pain, but Bilney was miserable, inconsolable. He felt like Peter in his darkest hour, denying his Lord. Little Bilney did not have the strength to stand on his own. Unprepared to be a shining witness, he fell flat on his face.

Falling to his knees instead, he went to the Lord in prayer. It was God alone who could prepare him for battle. Bowing before God’s throne of grace, Little Bilney prayed hard. Then filled with a renewed zeal, he reversed his former way. He took to the fields of England, bravely confessing his weakness and lamenting his former cowardice. He preached the Word of God, all over southern England! Even for distributing Bibles, the penalty was death. He knew the consequences, but he sang with the Psalmist, “Because Thy lovingkindness is better than life, my lips shall praise Thee” (Psalm 63:3). Before he left, he hinted to his closest friends, “I must needs go up to Jerusalem.” Little Bilney was ready to witness!

Well over 400 years later, we still must be ready to witness. Little Bilney, man of God, witnessed well of His Maker’s Name and marvelous works. So must we. Yes, this means you and this means today. Bilney’s calling was in 16th century England; yours is wherever you are, in whatever you do. Each day of your week presents opportunities to let your light shine. At home, Sunday through Saturday: the way you treat and respect your parents. At work – morning to evening – the friendships with co-workers, the humble service to employers, the prayers at lunch break. At school – September to June – the honest studies in God’s Name, the love and fellowship among classmates, the respected authority of teachers. The places you go – from childhood to late adulthood. The places you avoid. All these reflect the way you live. Each is a chance for others to see exactly what it is that you intend to say by your actions. Let the way you live “say,” God is my God, my Father. He has purchased righteousness for me with a price – His own life, His own blood. And be His witness with a life of thanksgiving! Accept your calling to be a Little Bilney.

 “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.”

 (Psalm 19:14)

            Is if difficult? Too much to ask? As Psalm 19 hints, daily witnessing is not in vain when you are near to your Strength and Redeemer in prayer. Mission work is never futile with Jesus Savior piloting us. O sure, we often stumble and fall. Perhaps it is when we do not want co-workers to see us “being Christians.” Being a little secretive with professors or bosses about the fact that God has chosen us for a different home, a heavenly palace? The situation never arose, right? Nobody ever specifically asked? Uh-huh. Or perhaps the issue just never “came up” while on a date. Dating can be just for fun, so why mention who we really are? Right? Without prayer, you see how difficult it can be. Our friend Bilney found it all too difficult under pressure. He cracked. By denying the truth, he hid his light under a bushel. (This makes me wonder…Did I hide mine under a bushel today?…Did you?)

Take it to the Lord in prayer. Prayer does work. It is so terribly important, stresses Paul, that we need to “pray without ceasing” (I Thess. 5:17). Otherwise we will lose – repeatedly. Unprepared to witness – getting knocked over time after time, you need humbly to petition God. Ask in faith, and the Lord of mercy shall reward you with the strength to go forth in His name – as His witnesses. You! Ready to witness!

On a larger scale, prayer is applied to mission work. The Lord provides missionaries the strength to go forth in His Name as His witnesses, preaching and baptizing. Of all the ways for a congregation (quite literally, a “congregation” here is a group of witnesses, sending forth a preacher from among them) to aid mission work, prayer is chief.

Pray for missionaries!

Pray for God’s guiding hand on the mission field.

Pray daily.

These daily prayers are part of a thankful walk.

Prayers of undeserving sinners…

For Jesus’ sake…

Before the Almighty Jehovah.

Here lies the mysterious wonder of salvation – that God chose to save wretched sinners – those who deny His Holy Name repeatedly. The Lord loves His children and will not leave them. When these wretched sinners cannot live with themselves…no peace, no rest, no hope…just misery and denial…(like the agony of Little Bilney), God is there (Psalm 139). O, thanks be to God for this! “If it had not been the Lord who was on our side…then the proud waters had gone over our soul” (Psalm 124). God Almighty will be praised! Therefore, repent and go to God in prayer.

Right now, the example of Thomas “Little” Bilney may seem to be a bit extreme, but our calling to witness individually and to perform missions collectively is very REAL, regardless of the circumstances. In the following months, the Lord willing, you will see questions answered about missions, witnessing, and the great need for prayer. (1) Preaching the gospel throughout the world, (2) witnessing of Christ in our lives, and (3) praying for God’s grace and guidance upon both of these are the three threads woven into the upcoming selections under the rubric Missions and Witnessing.  May the Lord graciously bless our studies and always guide us to His Word. You must be ready to witness and sing!

 Lead on, O King eternal;

The day of march has come.

Henceforth in fields of conquest,

 Thy tents shall be our home.

Through days of preparation

Thy grace has made us strong

And now, O King eternal,

We lift our battle song.

   (Lead On, O King Eternal

    Ernest W. Shurtleff, 1887)


Little Bilney was led out to a deep hollow outside the gate of Norwich. He fell on his knees to pray, then embraced the stake. As the sheriff’s men bound him to the wooden stake with chains of iron, God’s faithful witness felt more free than ever.

Then, the deputies bent down to light the dry bundles of wood, securing Bilney’s martyrdom. The fire waxed hot, but the end was painstakingly slow in coming. Spectators watched as Little Bilney was only somewhat scorched because the afternoon breezes were blowing the flames away from him. Yet it did not last. The fire continued to consume Little Bilney who, licked by the flames, was a brave soldier, a free man, and a true witness of God. He uttered the name of Jesus his Savior amid the fiery blaze. “I believe,” he said, and died.


            *Note: Some facts taken from Such a Candle, by D. C. Wood (Evangelical Press).